Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyoko Kagawa, Eitaro Shindo, Akitake Kono, Masao Shimizu, Ken Mitsuda, Kazukimi Okuni, Yoko Kosono, Noriko Tachibana, Ichiro Sugai, Teruko Omi, Masahiko Kato, Keiko Enami, Bontaro Akemi
Written by: Fuji Yahiro, Yoshikata Yoda, based on a story by Ogai Mori
Directed by: Kenji Mizoguchi
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 124
Date: 03/31/1954

Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Slaves and the Bold

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Of the three acknowledged masters of Japanese cinema (Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi), Mizoguchi is the hardest to pin down. He prefers long takes and subtle storytelling, but does not employ any specific stylistic flourishes that make his work easy to categorize.

His Ugetsu (1953), the only other of his films to be released on DVD in the U.S., is a kind of moral tale with samurai and ghost story touches. But Sansho the Bailiff is something else entirely, serious as a heart attack and so emotionally wrenching that it's almost difficult to watch. Fortunately, Mizoguchi's soft style quietly coaxes us through, all the way up to the stunning final moments.

Set during the 11th century and based on a well-known Japanese story, Sansho the Bailiff tells the story of a family torn apart by politics. An idealistic governor clashes with a powerful feudal lord and winds up banished. His wife, son and daughter are separated and sold as slaves. For ten years, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and his younger sister Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) toil for the evil Sansho (Eitaro Shindo), while their mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) suffers elsewhere.

Despite the lesson his father taught him -- always have mercy on your fellow man -- Zushio has become resigned to the fact that it's better not to rock the boat; he even helps brand a fellow slave after an unsuccessful escape attempt.

News of their mother arrives in the form of a song that one slave picked up, a song that mentions Zushio and Anju by name, but also expounds on the colossal suffering and pain of life. Zushio eventually gets the chance to make things right, but finds that, in certain areas, the practice of slavery has done permanent damage.

In 2007, the Criterion Collection presented Sansho the Bailiff in an exceptional single-disc DVD set with a beautiful booklet, including stills, two versions of the original story and an essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu. Japanese literature professor Jeffrey Angles provided the commentary track, and other extras included interviews with critic Tadao Sato, assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka, and actress Kyoko Kagawa.

In 2013, Criterion followed up with a superb new Blu-ray edition. Aside from the new high-def transfer and an uncompressed monaural audio track, the bonus features appear to be the same. Now hopefully Criterion can set its sights on Mizoguchi's Life of Oharu, long absent from American video shelves.

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